Classic Movie Review: The Man Who Laughs
- Wednesday, November 04, 2009
For years I'd heard that Batman creators Bob Kane and Bob Finger drew their inspiration for the Joker from the title character, Gynplaine, in the silent film, The Man Who Laughs, although, as the Wikipedia article on the Dark Knight's uber-villain states, another Batman pioneer, Jerry Robinson claimed the idea came more directly from the Joker playing card. So, I finally rented the movie from Netflix and it was a revelation. It didn't resolve the Joker's origin source but it did remind me how great silent Hollywood films could be and how under-appreciated that era is.
As the marvelous special features point out, Universal Studios, hoping to perpetuate their successful series of Lon Chaney horror films, which included an adaptation of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, next chose another of the author's books, The Man Who Laughs. The historical epic, set mostly in the early 1700s, concerns the son of a British nobleman, Gwynplaine, who is ordered by the king to be mutilated. Gypsies fulfill the king's command by carving the boy's mouth into a permanently gruesome grin. The abandoned boy trudges through the snow and discovers an enfant in the arms of his dead mother, Taking the baby in his arms the boy eventually comes upon some traveling performers whose leader, Ursus, adopts them both. He soon discovers that the girl, whom he names Dea, is blind. The children grow up under his care, joining the troupe with Gwynplaine (played by the great German actor Conrad Veidt) becoming the star of the show as "the Man Who Laughs," a draw for the commoners who flock to his performances that includes Dea. She has fallen in love with Gwynplaine, who knows she would spurn him if she knew what he really looked like. This YouTube ten-minute segment, part of what appears to be the entire film, indicates the visual beauty of the production.
Things really get complicated when the Duchess who has been granted Gwynplaine's father's hereditary estate sees the deformed man's performance and, perversely drawn to him, bids him meet her at what is actually his own family residence. In an horrendous scene, she tries to seduce him as Veidt acts entirely with his eyes, wide with terror, his fixed grin partially covered by a scarf. Things get only more difficult from here.
Universal poured all of its resources into a splendid production and integrated elements of German expressionism, with it's use of emotional acting styles and shadowy sets. In 1928, sound recording on film had just arrived and the studio had to decide whether it would be a silent or talkie. The issue was resolved when the dental prosthesis that kept Veidt's mouth in its hideous grin made it impossible for him to say his lines and dialogue was kept to the title cards but the musical accompaniment and some sound effects and crowd vocalizations went on the soundtrack. The film's director Paul Leni, keeps the camera moving throughout the film to dramatic effect reminding us just how dynamic silent film was. The film is unforgettable and I can see why Batman's creators could claim it inspired the Joker. This side by side comparison looks like pretty solid substantiation of the inspiration. If you're looking for a high-class Hollywood horror film this Halloween season, I suggest you treat yourself to The Man Who Laughs.
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